Penn State’s powerful political influence


(photo credit: flckr drocpsu)

Penn State University, targeted for unprecedented penalties after NCAA officials concluded that top university officials covered up child sex abuse by an assistant football coach has received more than $6 million in federal earmarks in recent years — a sign of the school's aptitude at the political influence game.

Some critics have contended that aptitude may have enabled the scandal to go on longer than it otherwise might have. In 2008, Pennsylvania's state legislature debated whether to require the school to disclose police records, email, phone records–information that might have led to earlier detection of the sexual abuse, Al Tompkins of Poynter noted.  But then-Penn State President Graham Spanier opposed open disclosure rules for the university. Spanier was ousted over the sex scandal, which he is accused of having known about since 2001 — a charge he disputes. Penn State remains one of several large state-funded universities remain exempt from the open records law, and a bill to amend the exemption is stalled in the state Senate. 

Since January 2011, Penn State has spent almost $700,000 lobbying on the state level through its Office of Governmental Affairs, including $113,135 on "gifts, hospitality, transportation, and lodging." 

Records retrieved from Sunlight's Influence Explorer suggest an active lobbying profile by Penn State on the federal level, as well. The school spent more than $3 million lobbying Congress since 1999. While that's far less than the $17.2 million spent by the New York State university system, or the $5.2 million spent by the University of Texas, it's comparable to lobbying expenditures by Ohio State and Michigan State.

The school's largest earmark in 2008 went for its cancer center in Hershey, Pa. Other federal funds, steered by members of the state congressional delegation, went for the school's agriculture programs.

Underlying data extracted from Influence Explorer shows that since 1990,  school employees have given nearly $1 million in campaign contributions to candidates for federal and state office. 


Powered by Socrata

Most of the campaign donations come from professors, administrators, and other employees of the university, with few contributions from the Penn State officials at the center of the scandal. A total of $14,040 in donations came from the late football coach Joe Paterno and his family. The NCAA on Monday erased more than 100 of Paterno's victories, knocking him off his perch as the nation's winningest college coach, for Paterno's failure to report his longtime assistant, Jerry Sandusky, for molesting young boys. The coach's contributions went to his son, Scott Paterno, who made an unsuccessful 1994 bid for a congressional seat, as well as politicians such as former Sen. Arlen Specter and former Rep. Joe Sestak.

(MORE: How lawmakers lionized Joe Paterno in Congress)

In 2010, Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, and Specter a Republican turned Democrat, introduced a resolution in 2010 to congratulate the university for its 400th win under Paterno. The two, who together solicited more than $900,000 worth of earmarks for the university, are among the top recipients of contributions from Penn State employees. Specter received $17,480 between 1996 and 2010, $1000 of which came from Paterno himself. Casey has received $15,950 from Penn State contributors since 2006. Casey sponsored another resolution congratulating Penn State's IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon this year, along with Sen. Pat Toomey, who won Specter's seat in 2010. Toomey has received $5,150 from Penn State contributors since 2010. 

Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., introduced a  resoluton to honor Paterno, with 16 other Pennsylvania representatives co-sponsoring the measure. Thompson represents Penn State's congressional district, and has received $4,350 from Penn State employees. 

Overall, Penn State employees sent $42,000 over the years to state lawmakers. 

With large lobbying expenditures and employees sitting on key federal advisory committees, Penn State's influence extends beyond campaign donations. The university has 196 employees sitting on 91 committees, spanning topics from Pediatrics to Clean Air to Naval History.